Interior's Watt draws environmentalist fire from all sides

Environmental organizations that cut across the political spectrum are sharpening their swords, preparing to do battle with US Interior Secretary James Watt.

Organized opposition to US decisions affecting the environment is not new. But this round may be particularly noteworthy because groups such as the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Audubon Society -- not known for a high degree of political activism -- have joined the ranks of more militant organizations mustering against Mr. Watt and his policies.

The NWF, by far the largest conservation group in the country, also is the most conservative, made up largely of Republicans. Up to now, the NWF has been taking a "cooperation rather than confrontation" approach to the Watt challenge.

But earlier this week the NWF abandoned this stance, doffing its kid gloves. The organization has called on President Reagan to dismiss the interior secretary.

Jay D. Hair, executive vice-president of the federation said in a press conference July 14, "In our dealings with the secretary, including two meetings that I have had with him, we have found that he places a much higher priority on development and exploitation than on conservation. . . . We have found that he is inflexible and unresponsive to ideas and entreaties from the conservation movement."

The federation polled a 4,000-person sample of its 4.6 million members. One out of every two voted for President Reagan. When respondents were asked to select between policies expressing the NWF viewpoint and those expressing Mr. Watt's, they rejected Watt's positions by a 13-to-1 margin. Eighty percent of those who felt "qualified" to assess Watt's performance rated him "far too extreme" in promoting development.

This action follows by about two weeks a meeting of the National Audubon Society, at which society president Russell W. Peterson lashed out against the Reagan administration's environmental policies.

Mr. Watt has riled environmentalists with a number of incidents. They include:

* His stated intention to open more tracts for offshore oil leases while reducing the budget allotted for environmental assessments of such exploration projects.

* Adopting a moratorium on federal land acquisitions for parks and wilderness areas.

* The characterization of wilderness as a single-use resource that has "locked up" valuable mineral deposits and which must be reclassified for multiple use. Reclassification would open these areas to exploration for resources.

* A recent memo to Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman , seeking reversal of former President Richard Nixon's Executive Order 11644, which states that federal agencies are required to determine the impact of off-road vehicle usage.

* The continual discussion of transferal, reduction, or abolition of individual national parks and wildlife refuges.

* Reducing the Office of Surface Mining staff from about 1,000 to 600.

* Ordering the Office of Endangered Species to drop some species from its endangered list.

As a result, environmental groups may be entering a period of renewed militancy that harks back to the late '60s and early '70s.

The Defenders of Wildlife is suing the secretary for lifting the ban on importation of kangaroo skins (kangaroos are threatened with extinction). The case, pending in the US Court of Appeals, may be followed by suits on three other issues: importation of another threatened species, peregrine falcons; legalizing the use of off-road vehicles at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia; transfer of almost 19,000 acres on Matagorda Island in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to the State of Texas.

The State of California and a coalition of private environmental groups have filed independent suits against Watt for permitting off- shore oil leasing in the Santa Maria Basin, where sea otters are threatened with extinction. The court has ruled that no bids may be accepted here until a decision has been reached.

The Sierra Club is circulating a petition calling on Congress to pressure the President to remove Watt from office. The Audubon Society, Green Peace, and Friends of the Earth have also undertaken petitioning. Short of forcing Watt out of office, they hope the desired 1 million signatures will signal the President and the secretary to bring conservation policy back in line with environmentalists' concerns. The Sierra Club alone has collected almost half a million signatures, and 12,000 to 15,000 new signatures are coming in each day.

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